Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Driven to Abstraction... by Danielle Hurd (inspired by Tasha Hinton)

One of our readers, Tasha, let us know about a great post she had written about abstract art. You can read the post here:

In the post Tasha talks about her "conversion" to abstract art and the still negative attitudes of many to the genre. Everyone has heard the refrain, "My kid could make that!" while visiting the Modern/Contemporary wing of their favorite museum. This brings about my question: Can/will abstraction ever be whole-heartedly accepted by the public? Will the average museum goer ever fall in love with Pollock the way that Greenberg won over the artistic establishment in the 1950's?

Perhaps I am a pessimist, but I tend to doubt it. As evidence I submit my favorite abstract work, El Lissitzky's Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.

A propaganda piece rallying the Communists (the red wedge) to aggression against the Capitalists (the white circle), this litho always made me laugh a little bit. WHY? Because it is so idealistic! With its accompanying title it is a remarkable effective image but I wonder if, without the labeling and without the explanatory title, if it would have been effective. Perhaps more so than many abstract pieces. The sharp RED (such a symbolic color) wedge does seem to do a great violence to the bloated, passive circle. But could it ever be as didactic as this:

Of course this is more mundane, less intellectual, but it exactly models appropriate behavior and is thus highly relatable. (I love propaganda posters, by the way. Visual Culture studies are fascinating! But that is a topic for another post.)

My point: the concept of making an abstract visual language which would communicate with the masses, the way the Soviet artists hoped to do, seems like a long shot. Unless, perhaps, the Russians are infinitely better at critical thinking than the American public, I can never foresee abstraction being as efficient a visual language as naturalism. It would seem this pessimism won out both in the USSR, who switched to a more traditional style (as seen above), and in the US, which favored more traditional imagery in later propaganda campaigns like those surrounding WWII (see

So, if abstraction failed as propaganda, can it succeed as art? Will visual literacy ever develop to the point that El Lizzitsky's experiment could really succeed?

P.S. Every other Friday I go teach art at a two-room schoolhouse in Vernon, UT (pop. 242-ish). Last week I filled manilla envelopes full of images of famous paintings and let the children choose the ones they wanted to talk about in front of the class. They picked almost all of the landscapes, animalia, and the abstract pieces, leaving the Renaissance and 19th C. history paintings and portraiture behind. Who would have guessed?


  1. My comment may not be completely relevant concerning propaganda art but my comment does concern abstract art. I used to be one of those people that was apprehensive toward the work of say Pollock or Rothko, this has all changed. One day my friend, a Rothko obsessive, said to me- "I can't stand those people that say I could have made that," his response to "those people", "Ya well you didn't." And with that in mind I began to experience abstract art in a new light. Keeping that comment in mind as I toured the New York museums with a new found attitude I began to find a love and appreciation for the abstract modern artists. Their ability to create their emotions fascinates me. So... I say to you that there is hope. Long live abstract art.

  2. I agree with Haddy, I think that people are really willing to open up to abstract art. But, I do think there has to be some level of education - be it a class or a friend who really appreciates this stuff, I think often people have to have their ideas about abstract art challenged to really consider it, and I think more often than not, when that happens, they will come out with at least an appreciation of abstract art.

    However, I also agree with you Danielle in that I don't know if abstract art will ever really be accepted wholeheartedly by the public - I think it is easy to go through your life without having to really think about abstract art in a way that would lead to appreciation.